In his "State of the City" speech Wednesday night, Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine adopted an approach that both felt familiar in a city where tech is king and that broke sharply with all prior mayoral addresses: crowdsourcing.
Departing from the norm, Fine invited members of the Palo Alto community, including residents, business leaders and volunteers, to share the spotlight with him and to offer their own thoughts about the state of the city in front of a crowd of about 100 people gathered at Mitchell Park Community Center.
He also used the wide-ranging and largely upbeat speech to call for more action on housing, offer a coronavirus update and discuss some of Palo Alto's most pressing problems, including traffic congestion and a business environment that is showing signs of distress.
Fine, who is the City Council's youngest member and staunchest housing advocate, touched upon the recent demise of state Senate Bill 50, which would have mandated relaxed city zoning restrictions near transit hubs and in jobs-rich areas. He was the council's sole supporter of the bill, which was authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener and which fizzled in the state Senate in January.
While opponents of SB 50 derided it as an attack on local control (Councilman Eric Filseth devoted a large portion of his own "State of the City" speech last year to critiquing the bill), Fine suggested that the city has many opportunities to exercise its zoning powers to create housing — it just hasn't done it. He alluded to the 2013 referendum that killed a proposed housing development on Maybell Avenue, which would have included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, and the city's recent troubles in creating a new vision for the Ventura neighborhood.
"Put simply, do we have the will to solve this housing crisis, or are we going to dither?" Fine asked.
While Fine didn't offer any specific proposals for boosting the housing supply, a goal that the city has struggled to achieve, he made a case for being more accepting of duplexes and houses with three or four units. He also used the Stevenson House, a residential community for seniors, as an example of the type of housing the city needs more of.
Fine recapped some of the council's small victories on the housing front, including a zone change to enable 55 small units on El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, a development that will be geared toward local employees. Yet he also referenced the loss of 75 apartments as part of the pending conversion of the President Hotel, a historic, six-story building at 488 University Ave., into a hotel. The council, he said, will take up the issue of the hotel conversion later this year.
"But I find it funny that one of the most beautiful buildings in town would be illegal to build today: too tall, too dense and too little parking. Why can't we do something like this again?" Fine asked.
Fine also pointed to some of the symptoms of the housing shortage, including the growing number of residents living in vehicles and the heavy traffic during commute hours.
The city, he said, is now working with Santa Clara County and other partners to figure out ways to find housing for people living in their cars. In January, the council approved a "safe parking" program that would allow local churches to house up to four vehicles each on its property and that would require participants to partner with nonprofit groups to help families find regular housing.
To illustrate the city's traffic problems and the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance (which is estimated at greater than 3 to 1), Fine showed a slide of morning commuters on Page Mill Road and Hanover Street, with bumper-to-bumper cars heading east toward El Camino and empty westbound lanes.
"We've effectively externalized our housing demand to other communities, and the result is traffic," Fine said.
Fine also suggested that the local economy is showing signs of strain, as evidenced by increased vacancies at Stanford Research Park, including the recent departure of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The city's economy, he said, isn't as strong as it used to be. He also suggested that the city has become overly regulated and, as such, less competitive than other cities.
"With a recession on the horizon, we need to address this," Fine said.
Another community gem that is now in danger, he said, is Antonio's Nut House, a famously unpretentious bar on California Avenue that is well-known for its gorilla cage, floors covered in peanut shells and diverse clientele. As the Weekly reported last week, the landlord has hinted that he is planning to sell the land.
"You may have heard that the Nut House will potentially close if the lot is sold," Fine said. "So I challenge everyone here, anyone listening, anyone listening to this recording: If you have the resources and the interest, please step up to help save this community gem! I think it would be a real shame if we lost our dive bar."
Fine then handed over the spotlight to 10 members of the community: Lisa Van Dusen, a sustainability activist; Jon Goldman, a partner at Premier Properties; Jade Chao, president of Palo Alto Council of PTAs; the city's Fire Chief Geo Blackshire; resident and serial entrepreneur Mike Greenfield; Amy Andonian, CEO of Avenidas; Zareen Khan, owner of Zareen's; Jon Cowan, director of local government and community affairs at Stanford Health Care; Fred Balin, a resident and government observer; and the Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor at University AME Zion Church.
Each talked about what they most like about Palo Alto and what they see as a challenge. Blackshire lauded residents' strong engagement in the community and said members need to become more prepared for emergencies.
"The challenge is getting the community to understand that they are the first line of defense," Blackshire said.
Cowan lauded the city's spirit of collaboration and strong knowledge base. A challenge, which is not unique to Palo Alto, is the tone of local dialogue and debates, he said.
"Unfortunately, in the political space today, it's become more common to criticize or attack people's motivation or what they're thinking as well as their positions," Cowan said. "We're going to disagree and not always agree on things. But the more we can set that aside and focus on the policy and not the personal issue, the better solutions we can all find."
Smith praised Palo Alto's compassion and pointed to the Dec. 28 vandalism of his church, which later held a solidarity sitting that attracted 500 people. Yet partly because of the community's diversity, many groups of people don't really interact, he said.
"We have a great mix and aggregation of people walking in the street but they're not living life together. Everybody goes to their own silo," said Smith, who chairs the city's Human Relations Commission. "So the greatest challenge for us is: How do we as a community start building in organic and natural ways?"
While Fine's address focused mostly local issues, the event featured numerous reminders of the top national story of the day: the spread of coronavirus. To ensure healthy hygiene, the city eschewed the usual pre-speech buffet and instead had top City Hall executives (as well as Councilwomen Alison Cormack and Liz Kniss) serving up dishes at rows of tables set up against the back of the room.
Fine also used a portion of his speech to provide a local coronavirus update. While Palo Alto hasn't had any reported cases, there are 14 cases in Santa Clara County as of Wednesday and one veteran who was transferred from another county in the state to the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System's Palo Alto facility.
"It's not a cause for concern, but we do need to be prepared," Fine said.